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While our nation has been caught up in the rhetoric of college-readiness and whether graduating high school students are truly “college-ready,” a counter-narrative seems to have been lost — or worse — never raised in the first place: Are our colleges student-ready?
We can point to any number of examples of the college-readiness narrative in the recent press. These include Andra Cernavskis’ recent article in The Hechinger Report (which also appeared in U.S. News and World Report): “Hands-on high school prepares students for the real world and jobs, but what about college?”
We at Big Picture Learning are particularly drawn to this article because it speaks to school designs similar to ours. So called hands-on high schools like High Tech High, New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, and others that are part of the Deeper Learning Network, have sprung up over the last two decades specifically because students across the country are at risk of dropping out of our nation’s public schools altogether. How’s that for not preparing students for college?
While we at Big Picture Learning care about getting students into college, and preparing them for what that environment will look like, we’re most interested in rekindling a passion and enthusiasm for learning in students — particularly in underserved communities, where high school and college dropout rates are the highest.
Our way of doing this is by teaching students through their own passions, exposing them to mentors in the community who have similarly followed their own interests, and helping them realize that opportunities for learning surround us, and are not exclusively situated within the four walls of the classroom.
We have prepared students for all sorts of ways that learning takes place in and outside of school expecting that colleges will not simply deliver endless hours of lecture-hall learning and text-based exams.
What good are courses delivered as “lecture-hall learning” in the first place? Employers regularly report that they want college students to graduate as innovators, effective team members and communicators, be able to think critically and problem solve, and demonstrate the capacity for continued new learning. These employers also regularly report that increasing numbers of college graduates do not possess these skills (or rather, that colleges don’t emphasize these skills enough).
However, these are the very skills and competencies that so-called “hands-on” high school models are expressly designed to engender.
High Tech High student Grace Shefcik (quoting from Cernavskis’ article) “took the ‘life lessons’ she had learned at High Tech High and applied them to her classes. She formed independent study groups and presented her work confidentially in classes that required it.” Similarly, Big Picture Learning student Luis Del Rosario shares “Before, I didn’t have much engagement in school. Then I discovered new ways to build and evolve my skills. I don’t think schools like these hold us back.”
And not only are these types of high schools better at teaching the skills employers wish college graduates possessed, they’re also better at sending students to college in the first place and having them persist. Consider the following:
- 98 percent of High Tech High’s graduates go on to college. 86 percent of those students stay in college through graduation (compared with a national rate of 59 percent)
- 88 percent of students at Big Picture Learning’s schools go on to college (compared to 73 percent in the districts that these schools are located in). 
- 72 percent of New Tech Network students enroll in college (a rate 9 percent higher than the national average), and 84 percent of those students persist.
Thus, a more complex question — given that hands-on teaching and learning models are increasingly sending students to college (and keeping them there) at rates higher than the national average — might be: Are colleges ready for our students?
To put another way: is the problem that students that are part of “hands-on” learning designs are not ready for college, or is it that college isn’t yet ready for students that graduate from innovative teaching and learning models? To put even more starkly: are colleges prepared for engaged learners?
Cernavskis acknowledges that deeper learning practices may actually be ahead of the curve. “What happens if the rest of education world hasn’t caught up?” she asks. The good news is that there are innovative pedagogical practices springing up in higher education that look very similar to the personalized learning innovations High Tech High and Big Picture Learning are best known for. Look no further than the Stanford d.school, Olin College, or MIT’s Media and Design Labs. The problem is, these programs are both in high demand and — for many of the populations schools like ours serve — unaffordable. Small, private programs in higher education may be innovating, but time may be running short for other forms of higher education—including large, public universities.
While it may be true that some students of “high-touch” high school designs are dropping out because of a clash in pedagogical styles, what do we make of the students who make up the 35 million young Americans who have started college and not graduated? Surely, all of these students aren’t part of “hands-on,” PBL-rich teaching and learning environments.
Students of all pedagogical approaches find themselves unprepared for the rigor of college learning or don’t find college that engaging and supportive in the first place.
School models that are designed around the student; that provide life-long learning skills and a passion for knowledge; that prepare high school students and graduates with the skills that employers are seeking – these schools are not the problem.
An antiquated model of higher education is the problem. “Lecture-hall learning” coupled with seat-time credits need to become a thing of the past, and quickly. Personalized learning approaches are not going away anytime soon.
It’s time for college to become student-ready.
Elliot Washor is the co-founder of Big Picture Learning, a non-profit organization for U.S. education redesign. Chris Jackson is Big Picture Learning’s chief communications officer.